Thursday, 1 January 2009

'August: Osage County' by Tracy Letts

August: Osage County
National Theatre presents Steppenwolf’s production

by Tracy Letts
Broadway's biggest hit comes to London for 8 weeks only.

-->Cast credits:
Little Charles :
Ian Barford
Steve Heidebrecht : Gary Cole
Violet Weston : Deanna Dunagan
Johnna Monevata : Kimberly Guerrero
Karen Weston : Mariann Mayberry
Barbara Fordham : Amy Morton
Ivy Weston : Sally Murphy
Charlie Aiken : Paul Vincent O'Connor
Bill Fordham : Jeff Perry
Jean Fordham : Molly Ranson
Mattie Fay Aiken : Rondi Reed
Beverly Weston : Chelcie Ross
Sheriff Deon Gilbeau : Troy West
Production credits:
Director: Anna D Shapiro
Set Designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Designer: Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting Designer: Ann G Wrightson
Music: David Singer
Fights: Chuck Coyl
Sound Designer:
Richard Woodbury
at Lyttleton, RNT

When the large Weston family unexpectedly reunites in Oklahoma, after their father disappears, their home explodes in a maelstrom of repressed truths and unsettling secrets. This new play unflinchingly – and uproariously – exposes the dark side of the Midwestern American family.
The internationally renowned Steppenwolf Company, last seen at the National Theatre with The Grapes of Wrath, returns to London with this Broadway smash-hit production, winner of the 2008 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for Best Play.

this is is a difficult show and a difficult show for me to chronicle my experience of: there is much to admire and it is completely engaging from start to finish, and yet i hung back through most of it, held firmly in place as a witness rather than being drawn in to the action or stirred emotionally at all by these people and their crashing stories. It is like watching a world - a microcosm of america we suppose - collapse in on itself. and finding it has no substance at its centre to either smash itself against or rekindle itself from, we watch it simply disappear into its own vacuum with less and less debris left behind to show what was once there.
one by one we watch each of the family members bring their own self-consumed versions of unhappy self-righteousness rage into the this claustrophobic house to thrash and wail about. None of them are entirely unlikeable, all are recognisable to us from our television and film stories and the constant ghosts of williams, albee, o'neil. Their stories, as in most families, are inescapably woven together in an increasingly mucky soup of interdependencies and stored up wrongs. And in this play it is the women who are shown to be the matter: Violet the drug addled matriarch, brewing her spells of vicious poisons around the rest of the family; her sister, Mattie Fay, stewing her own guilty secret into an unreasonably but determined rage at her bumbling son; Barbara, number one daughter, hissing her fury and hurt at not being able to keep intact the better family life she had thought to have determined for herself; Ivy, number two daughter, screeching and stamping and screening her independence into the most unholy of alliances with Little Charles; Karen, number three daughter, festooning her west coast foolishness as ludicrously brittle and transparent drapery to her repetitive victimhood; and Barbara's daughter, Jean, stoned and precociously unaffected, even by her own near rape. even Johnna, hired to be of service to family by the checking-out patriarch, while fulfilling her function with charm and efficiency, is unable to raise her own needs as a person above her need for a job.

so far so not so good but in a good way.

and the world we are shown is one where there are no longer any moral consequences - whatever people do, whatever rules, codes, behavioural ethics are trashed and transgressed, the only consequences that register are the immediately personal. so, Violet's drug-taking is only 'wrong' in the consequential effects this has on her behaviour (it's a joke she is able to blackmail doctors into writing her prescriptions); Ivy's incest is only 'wrong' when it has to be faced up to in conversation; 14 year old Jean's dope smoking goes uncensored; Bill's adultery is only measured in terms of the hurt it makes to Barbara and Jean; Steve's sexual harassment of Jean is allowed to go unchecked by police or any other possibility of retribution. this is a world where behaviour exists beyond or outside any moral coding, held up for notice or judgement only when and in terms of its infringement on what other people want or are stopped from having.

still so far so good - both as portrayal of the domestic secular story in our post-modern western world, as much as a dystopic state of the nation view of america.

but in this dissolute decaying fizzing petri dish of a species gone beyond its purpose or possibilities, the women are treated to the basest of cheap jokes and stereotypes. in a household of highly-read highly-educated people, we get the ghastly old horrors of 'you look like a lesbian', a medley of vagina-word sniggers (from the daughters); and barely more than a brief interruption in proceedings in response to Jean's molestation by the seedy Steve. and this is wrong in a very bad way. because i think for this show to matter beyond the moment of its happening in the theatre, we need to accept that these women are their own constructions made of and from themselves. just as we need to see their world as the mutually dependent dysfunctional system they have created for themselves (cf. albee's george and martha; cf. dysfunctional relationships we have known and watched ...), so too do we need to believe these women are self-made and self-perpetuated. and i do not: they are men in women's clothing. i think both watching it and now thinking back on it, i cannot accept these women as anything other than a man's creation, his pieces in an elaborate domestic computer game, where all the characters are inevitably variations of the creator.

and this is misogynism in a most destructively veiled way.

above and beyond this, the best of the show is the staging together with the acting which is fierce and forced through with an absolute intensity of single mindedness, so that all the characters arrive onstage fully fleshed. they then disappear from our view without carrying with them a hint of future story to wonder about: again like a computer game, they are all only manifest while they are deployed as competitors in action before us.

'this is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
this is the way the world ends
not with a bang but a whimper' (T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland)

Read an extract from the programme.

Read in the Guardian how August: Osage County will be made into a film by the Weinstein brothers.
Read Tracy Lett's interview in the Telegraph where he talks about his experience with August: Osage County.

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